"Senate Apology,"by Chester Hartman & Mark Planning November/December 2005 issue of Poverty & Race
Last June 13, the United States Senate unanimously passed Senate Resolution 39 (see Resolution text at end of interview), apologizing for that body’s past failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation—legislation the House had passed three times (1922, 1937, 1940). Each time the House-passed bill came to the Senate, Southern members used “states’ rights” arguments and the filibuster and other parliamentary maneuvers to prevent a floor vote—which most likely would have approved the bill.
Senate Resolution 39 was an extraordinary action, reported widely in the media. The effort was the result of several years of organizing/lobbying by The Committee For A Formal Apology—initiated by publication of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, by James Allen (Twin Palms Twelve Trees Press, 2000), the mind-blowing and sickening collection of photos, not only of the victims but of the festive crowds that regularly attended these horrific acts.
Eighty of the Senate’s 100 members were original co-endorsers of the resolution, introduced by Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and George Allen (R-VA); the remaining 20 took a lot of heat for their silence, leading 12 of them to add their names. The 8 holdouts, all Republicans, were both Mississippi Senators (Thad Cochran and Trent Lott), both Wyoming Senators (Craig Thomas and Michael Enzi), both New Hampshire Senators (Judd Gregg and John Sununu), Texas’ John Cornyn and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Although Senate Majority Leader Bill First joined as a co-endorser, he acted to protect his holdout colleagues by preventing a roll call vote and by scheduling the bill’s hearing on a Monday evening, a time when the Senate chamber is nearly empty.
In an effort to learn more about the work of the Committee For A Formal Apology, I interviewed Mark Planning, a DC-based lawyer who is pro bono counsel to the Committee.
Chester Hartman: Let me start off personally. You’re another anti-racist white guy. How did you get involved in this? What’s your background?
Mark Planning: I don’t have an activist background. I’ve always been very sympathetic to race issues, however. I have a brother, a Jesuit priest, who’s very involved in race and other social justice issues. I would say his work and my becoming a parent in recent years really made me think more about these things. The project—the apology—was an opportunity to do something positive, to make a contribution.
CH: How did you get involved in it?
MP: The campaign was inspired by the publication of James Allen’s groundbreaking book, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.
CH: Was he a key figure in starting the campaign?
MP: He was, along with Dick Gregory, the entertainer activist, and Dr. E. Faye Williams, another prominent human rights leader. Basically, after James Allen’s book was published in 2000, a public dialogue began about what to do with these pictures. Do we as a country continue to sweep this period of history under the rug, or do we try to do something constructive? One of my passions, my avocations, is 20th Century political history. I was amazed to discover that there is very little historical scholarship, at least by mainstream historians, on lynching. Perhaps this is because there is so much institutional shame on the white side, and then, frankly, anger by African Americans that this was done to their immediate past ancestors. To try to rectify at least some of this, Mr. Gregory, who, by the way, is an incredible human being, pulled together Dr. C. DeLores Tucker, Dr. Dorothy Height, Martin Luther King III, and over time, people like Janet Langhart Cohen, another amazing person. She is best known, at least in the City of Washington, as the wife of William Cohen, the former Senator and Secretary of Defense. Following her marriage to Senator Cohen, she became the first African-American Senate spouse since Reconstruction. The second, and only other, is Senator Barack Obama’s wife.
CH: Mrs. Cohen has a lynching in her family?
MP: Her cousin, Jimmy Gillenwater, was lynched in Kentucky around the time of the first anti-lynching filibuster. He refused to leave his land, so a mob hanged him from a tree. Mrs. Cohen did not personally know Jimmy, the victim, but she did know his mother, and the incredible pain and devastation she endured for the rest of her life. Over time, other lynching descendants joined our Committee. One is Doria Johnson, whose great-great grandfather, Anthony Crawford, was lynched in South Carolina. One of the pleasant surprises following the Senate apology was that the community of Abbeville, where this lynching took place, came together and formally apologized to the Crawford family. Doria has been working on these issues for over 10 years. She has a web site and does quite a bit of public speaking on the subject.
CH: Where does she live?
MP: She is in Evanston, Illinois, but there are Crawford descendants living all over the country. In fact, Doria assembled in Washington—it was absolutely incredible—about 100 Crawford family members. On the day of the apology, they attended a reception at the Capitol in their honor. That evening they sat in the Senate gallery to witness the apology. Another Committee member who is an actual survivor—the only known survivor of a lynching—is Dr. James Cameron. After almost being lynched in Marion, Indiana during the 1930s, he dedicated his life to educating Americans about this history. He founded the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee and has written extensively about his personal experience. Other Committee members include Dan Duster, the grandson of Ida B. Wells, and Emmett Till’s cousin Simeon Wright, who was with Emmett in Mississippi when he was abducted and lynched in the 1950s. The Committee was very authentic and grassroots. Everybody and everything just came together in a beautiful way. You know, someone once said about James Allen’s book, that when you view these pictures you are at once blessed and cursed to do “something” about them. For me, it was an opportunity to work with great civil rights leaders and hopefully inspire young people to learn all of their country’s history.
CH: How does the Committee function or meet, or is it really amorphous?
MP: Most of us are here in Washington so we were able to meet regularly. Initially, we put up a web site that included information about the campaign and a Senate petition that the public could sign. Then we just started knocking on Senators’ doors.
CH: Was it difficult?
MP: Mr. Gregory wrote two or three separate letters to every Senator. Eventually, Senator Landrieu saw a copy of Without Sanctuary in connection with one of these letters and immediately contacted us about serving as the lead sponsor. She thought it best to proceed in a bipartisan manner and requested that we help her find a Republican sponsor. So we started down the alphabet, first calling on Senator Allard from Colorado, then Senator Alexander from Tennessee. Senator Allen from Virginia was third, and he said yes.
CH: Any idea what motivated him?
MP: Apparently he has been very involved the last couple of years with Congressman John Lewis’ Faith and Politics Institute, which organizes civil rights pilgrimages for Senators and others. He told us that visiting these sites with Mr. Lewis was something of a life-altering experience. It also turns out he was a history major in college but, like most people, knew very little about this history, especially the Senate’s unique culpability for these crimes.
CH: Are you the convener, the initiator?
MP: I would say Dr. E. Faye Williams and I are. She and I did most of the Hill visits. We also took care of the mundane, day-to-day chores that go with running a campaign like this. Until Dr. C. DeLores Tucker’s death a few weeks ago, Dr. Williams served as her counsel. Now we’re hoping that she will replace Dr. Tucker as the head of the National Congress of Black Women, a wonderful organization that was started by the late Representative Shirley Chisholm. Dr. Williams is an impressive person and one of the authentic foot soldiers in the contemporary Civil Rights Movement.
CH: I understand Majority Leader Bill Frist tried to undercut your efforts.
MP: We requested a roll call vote on the apology. For starters, other groups who received an apology from Congress got one. But more importantly, we wanted Senators to be in Washington so they could come to the floor and speak on behalf of the resolution. Plenty of Senators, Democrats and Republicans, expressed to us a desire to speak. Additionally, we requested daylight business hours on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday when most of the Senators are around. Instead, Senator Frist gave us a Monday, starting at 6 pm. It was a big disappointment. This was the first time African Americans ever received from Congress any kind of apology or amends for past historical crimes committed against them by the federal government. Numerous Senators wanted to participate but were prevented from doing so because of the scheduling.
CH: The lobbying that was done—you described going door to door to find co-sponsors. What else was done to produce 80 sponsors?
MP: As I mentioned, we obtained thousands of signatures on a petition that was delivered to the Senate. We also had other groups and individuals contact Senators on their own. The letters from Mr. Gregory had to be hand-delivered to the Hill because of the anthrax contamination at the Hart Building. That ended up taking a great deal of time. Then, over a two-year period, we just called on Senate offices. It was good old-fashioned knocking on doors and getting lots of strange looks. Eventually, after we visited enough offices and staff saw the lynching pictures and reviewed the history, they got it.
CH: Was the book sent to all of the Senate offices?
MP: We brought it with us on our visits.
CH: I saw the exhibit at the New York Historical Society.
MP: I first saw it in Atlanta at the King Center. Just last week I saw it again in Chicago at the Historical Museum. James Allen and John Littlefield have, at their own expense, taken it all over the country, including Jackson State University in Mississippi and the Charles Wright Museum in Detroit. We would like to bring it to Washington next year.
MP: Janet Cohen and I met with the folks at the Smithsonian, the American History Museum. We were told, and it may be true, that they have exhibits already lined up for the next couple of years.
CH: What now? There was one reference in the press accounts to a follow-up activity of having Senator Richard Russell’s name taken off the Senate office building. Russell, of course, was the Senator from Georgia who blocked all of the anti-lynching legislation during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
MP: We think that’s a logical and respectful thing to do. Russell, more than any other single Senator, not only led all the campaigns to defeat anti-lynching legislation, but he fought to delay and weaken all other civil rights measures considered by the Senate between 1933 and 1971.
CH: I imagine the Russell name change would be a tough sell.
MP: It is. Senator Lott chairs the Rules Committee, and Senator Byrd is the senior Democrat. And it is really too bad. There were many Southern Senators, perhaps more than you are aware of, who traveled heroic personal and political journeys to finally embrace civil rights. Richard Russell, unfortunately, was not one of these Senators. He went to his grave still believing this white supremacist garbage. It is an indignity and an incredible insult to African Americans that the oldest, most prestigious Senate office building is named for him. A new book just came out on the Senate called The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern Senate. It is written by a history professor from the University of Texas who really tears into the Senate Russell myth. On page 260, for example, he writes: “Russell’s virulent and unrelenting racism went largely unmentioned in the summaries of his career and contributions. On that issue, he allowed race and his hatred for black Americans to guide his decisions. The qualities for which his Senate colleagues admired him were ones that he extended to them as fellow white Americans. Had Russell had his way, African Americans would always have been excluded from full equality. That such a cramped spirit attained ‘greatness’ in the Senate says more about the institution than about Russell himself.”
CH: Are you working on removing the Russell name?
MP: No. We are looking instead at taking the political good will that has been created and possibly pursuing a joint resolution from Congress that would formally acknowledge and apologize for slavery. We believe it would represent another important step in furthering an honest dialog on race in this country. The issue of slavery, of course, is a good deal more complicated and controversial. It involves both the House and the Senate. It also brings in issues like reparations.
CH: Are you doing anything on the reparations issue at this point?
MP: No. In addition to possibly pursuing the apology for slavery, we are interested, I think I mentioned, in bringing the Without Sanctuary exhibit to Washington during February, Black History Month. These are things that can be achieved now. When people like Bill Clinton oppose reparations, it is a non-starter.
CH: Have you received any offers to host the Without Sanctuary exhibit in Washington?
MP: The Smithsonian has said they would display it at the African American History Museum in Anacostia, but we feel very strongly that African Americans know all about these pictures and this history. It is white Americans who need to see it. We just don’t believe many of them will view the exhibit if they have to travel to Anacostia.
CH: The lynching apology got marvelous publicity. Did you have a PR person or did it just spin itself?
MP: It spun itself, really. I’d like to tell you we had brilliant PR instincts, but the truth is the Without Sanctuary book did most of the work for us. It also turned out that the general press knew very little about this history and, consequently, recognized the newsworthiness of the apology. Really all one has to do is view these lynching photographs and read the filibusters from the Congressional Record and it will absolutely make you cringe. It is just nonstop ranting and raving about mongrelization and how blacks deserve to be lynched when they lay a hand on a white woman. It is almost too unbearable to read. You can barely turn to the next page of the Record.
CH: Well, you folks are to be congratulated on a great, inspiring victory. I hope you all will be able to do the follow-up tasks.
MP: Thank you, Chester. We really appreciate the interest and support of the Council.
109th CONGRESS - 1st Session
S. RES. 39
Apologizing to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation.
Whereas the crime of lynching succeeded slavery as the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction;
Whereas lynching was a widely acknowledged practice in the United States until the middle of the 20th century;
Whereas lynching was a crime that occurred throughout the United States, with documented incidents in all but 4 States;
Whereas at least 4,742 people, predominantly African-Americans, were reported lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968;
Whereas 99 percent of all perpetrators of lynching escaped from punishment by State or local officials;
Whereas lynching prompted African-Americans to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and prompted members of B’nai B’rith to found the Anti-Defamation League;
Whereas nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century;
Whereas, between 1890 and 1952, 7 Presidents petitioned Congress to end lynching;
Whereas, between 1920 and 1940, the House of Representatives passed 3 strong anti-lynching measures;
Whereas protection against lynching was the minimum and most basic of Federal responsibilities, and the Senate considered but failed to enact anti-lynching legislation despite repeated requests by civil rights groups, Presidents, and the House of Representatives to do so;
Whereas the recent publication of “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” helped bring greater awareness and proper recognition of the victims of lynching;
Whereas only by coming to terms with history can the United States effectively champion human rights abroad; and
Whereas an apology offered in the spirit of true repentance moves the United States toward reconciliation and may become central to a new understanding, on which improved racial relations can be forged: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Senate—
(1) apologizes to the victims of lynching for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation;
(2) expresses the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity, and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States; and
(3) remembers the history of lynching, to ensure that these tragedies will be neither forgotten nor repeated.
Chester Hartman email@example.com
Mark Planning firstname.lastname@example.org
See also W. Fitzhugh Brundate, Lunching in the New South; James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland; Laura Wexler, Fire In A Canebrake: The Last mass Lynching in America; Adam Fairclough, Better Day Coming; George C. Wright, Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South.
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